FISH CREEK – Kirk Fowler was looking for something new.
The Oregon high school math teacher travels to Montana every summer for a weeklong fishing trip. They had tried the Yellowstone River and Rock Creek and the Bitterroot branches. Despite its name, Fish Creek had never made their itinerary.
Until this summer. Without realizing it, Fowler had become one of the first to enjoy Montana’s newest state park and wildlife management area.
“This was an all-new adventure,” Fowler said, standing in the nearly empty Forks primitive campground. “The watershed seems in pretty good shape and there’s lots of logs down in the creek. And I saw a black bear.”
He also caught one respectable cutthroat trout on nymph last Thursday morning, a day almost too windy to play flies. Life sciences teacher and fishing partner Jim O’Connell of Newberg, Ore., had similar luck, and saw even more potential for Fish Creek.
“This really reminds me of Rock Creek, but smaller water,” O’Connell said. “And I can see mountain biking with all these roads here. The cuts sure are beautiful. And there’s a lot of stuff nibbled on all along the stream – lots of critters here.”
Those same thoughts, in slightly more bureaucratic form, formed the justification for a $17.35 million purchase of 41,000 acres of former logging land. Plum Creek Timber Co. owned most of the drainage, interspersed with a few checkerboard parcels of state, private and U.S. Forest Service land. The timber company sold its holdings to The Nature Conservancy and Trust For Public Lands in 2008 as part of the Montana Legacy Project.
Those two conservation groups immediately went looking for public buyers to take over the property. For the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, it was a dream chance.
“This is the jewel of tributary fisheries in the upper Clark Fork,” said FWP fisheries biologist Ladd Knotek. “It’s completely surrounded by intact ecosystems. This is a very unique, functioning, cool place. That’s why people come here.”
Fish Creek hits the Clark Fork 41 miles west of Missoula, smack in the middle of the popular Alberton Gorge whitewater reach. Its headwaters lie about 35 miles to the south, just above Lolo Hot Springs.
Fish Creek Road runs the whole length of the drainage from Interstate 90 to U.S. Highway 12. Along the way, about 520 miles of forest roads contour the hillsides. Those roads served generations of loggers and now attract four-wheelers, motorcyclists, bicyclists, horse riders, hunters, wildlife watchers and campers.
A mix of jungle-thick forest, clear-cuts, forest fire scars, avalanche chutes and skid lines covers the mountainsides. The creeks flow 2,000 feet below. Their channels glow with a riparian green that jars against the more washed-out alpine tones of the slopes.
There are two parts to the state purchase. The biggest chunk is the wildlife management area – about 35,000 acres that will prioritize hunting, fishing and frills-free recreation. The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited and other nonprofit groups have already spent thousands of dollars and hours working on this portion, taking out old roads, repairing culverts, killing noxious weeds and enhancing fish habitat.
The trickier part is a new state park on the northern tip of the drainage. A crucial part of the purchase budget came from dedicated state park money. But its actual design and amenities have stirred controversy and prompted FWP to rein in its planning process.
“We’re going to have to go slow and easy,” said FWP planning director Lee Bastian. “We want to build on the recreation that’s there – enhance what’s there. We heard a lot of concern about a future campground. It’s premature to identify where that campground will be. We know we don’t want to put one in an area that’s not suitable.”
On the map, the state park’s 6,200 acres cover a house-shaped space at the northern end of the valley. Its peaked roof is the angle where Fish Creek meets the Clark Fork River. South of that, the park area encloses a maze of old logging roads that cling to the hillsides leading to Williams Peak.
The northeast edge of the park contains the most flat land for a campground, and also the biggest concentration of private homes and ranches. At Mineral County government meetings, some residents there have criticized the park plan as underfunded and intrusive.
But there’s also a lot of interest in improving the tourist opportunities around Alberton Gorge. FWP was able to buy much of the shoreline of the gorge in 2004, but the steep topography limits where even an observation site could go, let alone a campground.
In addition to the established Forks and Big Pine state campgrounds, there are roughly 20 more sites along Fish Creek that campers have used for decades. One angler who didn’t want to share his name did say his extended family had come from Montana, Washington and Utah at one such unofficial campground every summer for the past 10 years.
Bastian said most of those sites will remain as is. A few that are causing erosion problems along the creek might get improved or removed. But the decision-making effort needs much more public review before any bulldozers roll, he said.
Another site that could get attention is the Williams Peak fire lookout. It’s almost impossible to see from the creek. But atop Williams Peak, there’s little that can’t be seen from its balcony.
The lookout rises about 60 feet above the summit. Inch-thick support cables don’t seem enough to keep it tethered to the earth, but last week’s high winds barely moved the structure. From its balconies, the Mission Mountains, Bitterroot Range, Lookout Pass and Lolo Pass are all visible.
This summer, FWP hopes to complete an engineering study to see if it can be used as a rental cabin, a scenic viewpoint or if it is too unsafe for public access.
Its viewshed includes the southern headwaters of Fish Creek, where a resident herd of about 500 elk winters. FWP wildlife biologist Vickie Edwards said protecting those ranges had been a priority for the agency since 2000. With the land purchase, those projects are now part of management plans that look out 50 years.
“We know things are tight economically and there’s been a downturn in state government funding,” Edwards said. “We don’t want to develop something we can’t take care of.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.